William James’ Views on Theism
Please write an essay to the following topic: William James’ view on the rationality of believing in God. Please add at least four quotations (no block quotations). The essay must clearly explain what the William James is arguing about and offer an evaluation of the argument.
William James’ Views on Theism
William James is a famous philosopher known for many things such as such as his essay, “The Will to Believe.” According to the deliberations, it is evident that James is in particular defence of the religious faith although he gives examples that suggest his views have an altogether broader scope. His arguments have quite some affinities, but James does not have a direct appeal to our innate concern for future happiness. His essay is a cornerstone for the contemporary debates over faith, over belief and evidentialism.
To analyse the thoughts of James on theism, we have to understand his framework first. Anything that is subject to our beliefs is known as a hypothesis, and the question of deciding which theory to pick is an option. He proposed that options can be grouped into three categories:
Living- a live hypothesis is one that you could end up believing in the case of inquiry. If both constituents of a hypothesis are live, the option is living.
Forced – if you must choose one or the other choice in a hypothesis, that is a forced option.
Momentous – if an opportunity is fleeting, or when a great deal depends on the selection you make, that particular option is said to be momentous.
We will now look at the thoughts of William James concerning the belief in God and its rationality.
The question surrounding God cannot be settled using intellectual means. The option of believing or not believing is forced, live and momentous and in such circumstances, James suggests that every person is free to follow their passional nature and believe in whatever they would like. However, he goes on to elaborate further as he offers a diagnosis for the kind of characters that would resist the belief in God. In his view, rational thinking should always be governed by two dominant ethe: “Believe Truth and Shun Error.” These two appear to be contradictory since, if one were concerned with understanding the truth, they would believe anything and if they were concerned with shunning error, they would end up feeling nothing.
James wrote several works, and one of them is known as ‘Reflex Action and Theism’ where he approaches the belief in God from a ‘natural history point of view.’ He begins with the description the reflex action doctrine where he says, “The acts we perform are always a result of outward discharges from the nervous centre, and that these nervous discharges are themselves a result of impressions from the external world, carried in along one or another of our sensory nerves.” (Richardson, Robert D and William James 216) The argument is constructed in a logical way with a share of technicality and abstraction. According to James, he intends to show that a God (whether real or not) is the being that, if he existed, would form an adequate object for minds designed like ours to consider lying as the root of the universe. In this piece, William James comes off as one who reasons on logic and goes on to argue, “Anything short of God is not rational, anything more than God is not possible.” (Richardson, Robert D and William James 216)
Human beings have been able to find some balance between the avoidance of error and the concern for truth. However, the way in which we can strike that balance is not guided by reason but rather by what might be referred to as character or temperament. In James’ view, people like W.K Clifford (who says that every decision must be guided by sufficient evidence), are cowards who are afraid of suffering the embarrassment of believing in something that could turn out to be false. James is willing to go out on a limb and risk embarrassment if it helps him to discover the truth. James has no time for any assumptions on posthumous punishments or rewards. James assumes that if God is really in existence, then the mere knowledge that he does is of immense value in its light. On the other hand, to harbour the knowledge that God doesn’t exist if, he dies not, is worth much less. The Cliffordian suspends judgment on the grounds of insufficient evidence since he would rather risk missing out on the truth than being wrong. In the case of being right about God’s existence, James highly regards the value of being right seeing it as worthy of any risks that the belief might bring along. He, therefore, believes because of internal strength and desire to believe in the existence of a God instead of depending on the strength of available evidence.
James recognised the possibility of holding the belief that one should bet on theism, while considering their personal interests, regardless of whether the theism is factual or not since the beneficial consequences would make such a gamble justifiable. James asserts that there are two fundamental claims to religion as they appear all over. The first claim is that eternal things are the best things and the second one is that we will be better off if we believe in the first. It is interesting to note that James does not talk about eternal things in his claims but rather ‘eternal things.’ He uses three metaphors to explicate that affirmation, “The overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word.” (James, William 25) Two ideas, sovereignty and perfection, are very clear from this affirmation. When he used the phrase ‘more eternal’ as a kind of necessity, it alluded to the fact that the first declaration could be interpreted as eternal things are those that are perfect, infallible and sovereign. The explanation helps to shed some light on the first claim made by James, and we finally confirm it when he says, “the more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The world is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou.” (James, William 26) If we consider it as his third claim, we can see that it alludes to monotheism by using Thou in his assertion. If we combine the first and third affirmations of religion, we can deduce that the supreme right in the universe can be realised by believing in the existence of a perfect and sovereign personal being.
James calls for a change in thinking
by abandoning the evidence-guided approach when it comes to matters of
believing in God. He suggests, repeatedly, that people ought to cast away the
fear of being wrong since there are more benefits in believing than scepticism.
It is clear that he holds the belief in the existence of a sovereign being as
evidenced in his writings. In referring to the world as “Thou,” the plural
context of the word adds emphasis to the fact that he is talking about a single
being and hence the rationale points towards a belief in monotheism. James does
not argue against conforming one’s belief to the available evidence on God but
rather on the decision to stop believing in times when the evidence is silent. His
argument is both pragmatic and epistemic since he argues that one of the more
practical advantages is to gain a better access to reality. We can now see that
the chasm between pragmatic and epistemic is bridgeable since his arguments
span both of these ends.
James, William. The Will to Believe. 1st ed., New York, Dover Publications, 1956. Richardson, Robert D and William James. William James. 1st ed., Boston [Mass.] [U.A.], Houghton Mifflin, 2007.